Ten years ago, Welsh native Matt Hookings, then an unknown actor, sat down to write a film about boxing. Although the son of late British boxing champion, David ‘Bomber’ Pearce, he chose to write about an entirely different boxer: Napoleonic war era pugilist Jem Belcher, the youngest British champion in history, who died young and poor.
A period piece about a boxer nobody knew, written by an actor without any clout, who also intended to star and produce. As with any good underdog story, filled with grit and determination, Hookings persevered, sold the script, and managed to rope in such heavy hitters as Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone to star alongside him as he took on the titular character. Now his film, Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher is out on Amazon Prime.
We sat down with Hookings to discuss the bloody business that was boxing before there were rules, the trials and tribulations of getting his film to the screen, and the surprising emotional journey of learning about his late father in the process.
LEO: Most people have never heard of Jem Belcher before this. How did you come to hear about him, and what made you decide to write a biopic about him?
Matt: Jem Belcher is kind of a forgotten hero. Die-hard boxing fans don’t even know anything about him. I was on a Russell Crowe film about 10 years ago, playing a very small part and a gentleman in his 60s came up to me and said, “I’m really sorry to disturb you, but you look like the spitting image of this boxer I used to follow in the 1980s called David ‘Bomber’ Pearce” – who was my dad. Me and my dad literally look like twins.
So, this gentleman was telling me about this article he was reading about my dad winning the British title, and next to the article was this slide about Jem Belcher, this bare-knuckle boxer from the 1800s. The youngest ever champion at 19, blind by 22, and dead by the time he was 30. And I just thought he had this Muhammad Ali-like personality and charisma about him, in the way he dressed, in the way he spoke. He was way ahead of his time. He talked about boxing as a science and a technique, rather than just being big and strong. I was immediately hooked, and it came to me through essentially someone thinking that I was my dad. And then I just went down the rabbit hole and started learning and researching everything I could for the next two years.
Did the British class system of the 19th century play into the writing of this film?
Absolutely. The Jem Belcher story was the heart and meat of the story, and you have boxing as well. But then, as I did more and more research, I began to discover that there was a lot of things changing at the time. There was a war going on with Napoleon. The class systems were starting to change, boxing at this stage was turning from slugging away in a field to becoming more of an event, it was attracting different kinds of audiences; women, children, people that didn’t necessarily associate themselves with boxing. And that’s all in the film.
Jem was the youngest ever champion at 19, and his life changed very quickly, from being dirt poor in the slums of Bristol, to having lunch and dinner with the high society of London.
Belcher fought well before the Marquess of Queensberry Rules of Boxing were established, and even before the introduction of the London Prize Ring rules. Could you tell us what a typical match might have looked like?
It was crazy. Jem once fought 54 rounds in one fight! They would just basically fight until one person quit, and there was no count. You’d get knocked down; you would get back up. Get knocked down. Get back up. If you wanted to continue, you’d continue. It was very, very, very brutal and very bloody. And it just went on and on and on.
The interesting thing about Jem is his grandfather was Jack Slack, and Jack Slack’s grandfather was James Figg, who is basically the father of tactical fighting. The film opens with Russell Crowe in a field, it’s bare-knuckle and it’s brutal. And by the end of the film, we have an evolution of the sport, in more of a ring, with rules, with gloves.
The catalyst for the Queensberry Rules coming into play was someone got punched—I think it was in the neck or directly in the nose—and they died.
Having come from where you come from, and who your father was, delving back into the world of boxing must have been emotional—or had you become reasonably detached by then?
My dad passed away when I was 11. I was very young, and so I was shielded from a big chunk of the trauma that surrounded that with the family. I still, to this day, don’t really know the exact specific reasons of how he died, but I think he died of Sudden Death Syndrome which came from boxing related injuries. Weirdly enough, we were 10 days into filming and Ray Winstone, who knew my dad, told me, “I was in the operating room when your dad had a scan on his brain.” And that just blew me away. I learned more about my dad doing this film and the boxing and experiences, than I knew about him growing up, which was an emotional ride. It’s by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever put together and done in my life, being the writer and having this sort of connection to the sport. But I’m grateful for it.
When I grew up, I moved to England, and boxing was not part of my life. It was only stumbling across this story, which led me to fall in love with the sport. And in many ways, boxing saved me because the stress and anxiety that I had to go through on this film was just incredible. I ended up training as a boxer for four or five years. Coming home with broken ribs and nose. And my family and friends would be like, “What the hell are you doing? Why are you doing this? You’re training for a boxing film, which you don’t know is ever even going to happen. You don’t know if you’re ever going to play the lead and you’re just putting yourself through this pain and suffering.”
Did you enter any amateur fights or contemplate taking up boxing professionally? Or was it just film training?
I really want to fight now. I know it sounds crazy and everyone’s telling me not to, but I fell in love with it. I got really, really fit. I got very comfortable. I was training for four or five years with Lee Selby, who’s an ex-world champion. I started sparring, I started really enjoying it. Then I started training with professional boxers where my dad used to train in Wales. I went to Malta and was sparring with everyone out there. I went to Mexico, so I’ve done the rounds. And I would love to have a fight to break the release because I think I became quite good at it. Like I said, it saved me in many ways, from the anxiety and stress I was going through on the film.
I read that you watched something like a hundred boxing films in preparation. Were there any films that particularly stood out?
I probably watched 160 boxing films from 1927, which was a Hitchcock film called The Ring, up until the present day. First of all, I wanted to see what people had done right. And then, what people had done wrong. I wanted to see what worked and what didn’t. I wanted to see what I liked and gravitated towards. And some boxing films that were really helpful and useful were Paul Newman’s Somebody Up There Likes Me. That was great. City For Conquest with James Cagney. That’s the only boxing film I found where he lost an eye. Gentleman Jim in the 1950s was a very close representation to the time period. I enjoyed a lot of the new ones as well. But even outside of boxing films, my biggest ambition was Amadeus. I wanted to create a boxing film in relation to something like Amadeus, where that’s about music, but it’s also this textured time period and this character. Also films like Barry Lyndon.
Steven Berkoff was in Barry Lyndon and is also in your film. What was it like working with the likes of him, Ray Winstone, and Russell Crowe on your first film?
People very quickly asked me what it was like working with Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone, but one of my favorite moments was actually working with Steven Berkoff. He was just a very clever man. He’s incredibly put together. He’ll learn a monologue in half a day or he’ll come up with something on the spot and it was a masterclass in acting. We actually might be doing something else together as well. He was unbelievable to work with. Everyone was really great to work with, but working with Steven was powerful. He was bringing the theatrical to the performance. He was bringing the spontaneity to the performance. He was giving me everything, and all I could to do was sit there and watch him. It was incredible. I had a dream list of cast and I’m lucky enough to have gotten every single person that was on that list. It was through sheer determination and never giving up.
What’s more difficult? Producing a feature film or making it to the end of boxing match?
Definitely producing a film. I’m not even going to try and sugarcoat it. It’s horrible. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’ve done five feature films in five years, and I’ve worked with other cast who have been great as well, and it’s never been this tough. Trying to make an independent film with a Hollywood cast, during COVID, with all these restrictions, and things dropping out, and acting for 15 hours a day, and then getting home and being told the film’s gonna shut down at the end of the week. It was just mental. I actually don’t know how I’m here. So, I would take a boxing match any day of the week over producing a film again.
CHECK OUT MATT
As Jim Belcher in Amazon’s Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher